My treacherous Jewish heart
Natasha Joseph calls on the South African Jewish community to rigorously debate the Gaza issue
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” – Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass
As fire rained down on Gaza and rockets roared into Israel, I found myself thinking about the golem a great deal.
A friend posted a photograph on Facebook of a BBC journalist in Gaza, weeping over the swaddled body of his 11-month-old son.
Immediately, somebody commented: he wanted to know whether she would post photographs of dead Israeli babies, too.
I bit back tears and thought about the golem.
Another friend, who lives in Israel, said on Facebook that she had heard sirens warning of an imminent attack. She picked up her months-old baby and crouched down behind her lounge suite. I hoped she would be safe, and I thought about the golem.
The golem, Jewish mysticism tells us, is a creature made of clay and magic, a looming mass created solely to serve its master.
The golem is brought to shambling life by writing the Hebrew word “emet” (truth) on its forehead or, some versions of the story say, by writing G-d’s name on a piece of parchment and sticking it on to the golem’s arm or in its mouth. Removing this scrap would stop the golem in its tracks.
I write the word “G-d” like I do because that’s what I learnt at my Jewish school many years ago. It’s a way of respecting the Lord’s name, of ensuring that you never tear it up or erase it.
I do not believe in any god, in fact, but habits and traditions are so hard to unlearn.
At school, I absorbed everything I could about Judaism because it was part of my identity. Only a part, mind you – I am half Jewish, the product of a marriage between an Orthodox Jewish father and an Anglican mother.
The Jewish faith is carried matrilineally, and my father’s decision to break the rules on a January day nearly 35 years ago by marrying a woman he loved despite her different beliefs, has echoed throughout my life.
At school, my peers were fairly accepting of my unusual home life: when you’re 11 or 12 or even 17 going on 18, the idea that you get to celebrate Passover and Easter is appealing.
It was the adults who were the cruellest: the school rabbi’s wife who tried to goad my mother into conversion; the devout Jewish Studies teacher who told me the children of mixed marriages deserved a special place in hell; the Jewish History teacher who threw me out of class once because I dared to point out that 10 million people had died in the Holocaust, not just the 6 million Jews she kept referring to.
When I was 18, I did not consider “Jewish” a central part of my identity. Surrounded all day and every day by Jews, and reminded always that I was not of the tribe, I did not think to claim the faith as my own.
But then I left school and at university I was surrounded by thousands of non-Jews. Suddenly that half of me became a distinguishing feature. I began to call myself Jewish. Over time, those six letters, that word so full of history and suffering and beauty, became central to my identity.
In my mid-20s, I considered converting. By my late 20s, I had decided against it. This change came partly because I had finally come to accept my multitudes and their contradictions, and partly because I cannot stand hypocrisy.
The same “community” whose doors were closed to my mother all those years ago; the same kinds of people who called her names and told me she wasn’t a good person suddenly realised my job could be useful.
Don’t let anybody ever tell you that journalism is not a powerful vocation: my newspaper jobs, increasing slowly and steadily in import and seniority, meant I was worth wooing. At coffee meetings, I was gently reminded that I had an obligation to my community.
Once I told a community leader that I could not give special treatment to any section of society and told him I resented being bullied in the name of obligation. He told me to “get over” what had happened to my mother.
We, the Jewish people, have a great many gifts, but the ability to grasp irony is not chief among them. The community complains bitterly about media bias, but tries to court Jewish journalists and convince them that “our” stories deserve a place in the mainstream.
We remind people of the persecution we’ve faced for centuries, but Jewish youth organisations are summoned to meetings and told to tone down their politics so we don’t, G-d forbid, end up with young Jews asking tough questions. We value debate, we say, but we dismiss Jews like Zapiro and Ronnie Kasrils as traitors because they express views that stand outside the “community” norms.
South Africa’s Jewish community is a great deal like the golem. It projects only one truth. It follows only one master.
Under the auspices of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the South African Zionist Federation, it invites me via SMS to “join the community in showing solidarity with Israel” at an event in Cape Town. It’s there in black and white, isn’t it? The community is in solidarity with Israel.
If you believe Israel is in the wrong, or can read the situation in the Middle East in shades of grey rather than black and white, you are not part of the community.
I am not counting how many have died in Gaza and how many have died in Israel. I cannot believe that we have been reduced to a sickening tit for tat over images of children’s ruined bodies. I cannot believe that a faith that treasures debate sticks its fingers in its ears and glares dumbly at those of us who ask hard questions about Israel’s politics and its cruel bombs.
South Africa’s Jews – not to be confused with its “Jewish community” – embody the whole range of attitudes and emotions when it comes to the state of Israel. We are left wingers and right wingers. We are centralists. We believe Israel must destroy its enemies.
We believe Israel must lay down its weapons. We believe all Palestinians are dogs. We believe that a nation which was almost exterminated during the Holocaust is doing the same thing to another nation, and we believe this is inhuman.
We pray for peace, and we call for war.
We contain multitudes – and it is time for the community to stop closing its ears to that difference.
» Joseph is City Press news editor